The foggy view from a mountain top

Newcastle, but could have been anywhere else. I was attending a meeting that hammered home the scale of the mountain we have started scaling. At the mountain top is a better transport future, the challenge is safely navigating the transition path towards it. At the meeting I saw what the local authority officers are struggling with. It is the relating of present action to future outcomes. Maybe the mountain top is shrouded in mist. Maybe they are unsure or afraid of the path. Whatever it is they keep ploughing their comfortable furrows at the bottom of the mountain, cultivating the status quo, with an occasional gazing to the top. And they lack a sense of urgency in leaving base camp, and start to get to the top. You could think, they just haven’t mapped out the transition/change process yet, but I think there is more to this. The baggage might be too heavy.

Economic value

Every thing has an assigned economic “value” in our world run and dictated by finance. This value may not even be monetary at all, it may only be perceived as such, and decisions are made on that perception. City officials believe that increasing junction capacity is needed. Thinking goes:

  1. planned housing development must be catered for
  2. carry out (traditional) traffic modelling
  3. where would all the cars go?
  4. build in more motor capacity (an add insult to injury, construct it now so the induced traffic fills it before houses are even built, sigh)

And so the destruction, that current planning and engineering practice inflicts, continues. It becomes vital to reimagine and recontextualise the meaning of values. Again, this does not actually have to be monetary value at all. We, advocates for change, must make it our job to paint the value of a better society.

World of now

Most, if not all, transport transition gains sit in the longer run. Obesity, community/social severances, air pollution, even crash deaths – you name it – these are all benefits that don’t hit any bank account the next day. Sometimes do not hit a bank account ever (value-value gap). Transport transition is a gradual shift (away from the private car, if done right) but it does not reap immediate rewards. In a World of Now this causes inaction.

Politicians are said to lean towards short-term thinking. Their view is simply running as far as election cycles. This would make their planning selfish (ever aimed at re-election, not the common good of environmental, social, economic improvements). But this short-termist thinking is also true for council officers. They have adapted to the election cycles thinking. Officers are now working on the assumption that politicians think in short time frames, hence they have adopted it too. The self-fulfilling prophesy comes true. It also means that the officer is not an expert adviser anymore. They are only functioning on pure guess work. (All in line with the neoliberal plan to disconnect politics from its people.)

There also is a “if it ain’t broke (right now…) don’t fix it” attitude. At the VeloCity conference this year, I shockingly heard from a former Adelaide politician, that he advised cities to let congestion get worse, so that an urgency to act would be created. By doing so absolving himself from any political leadership in the process.

For getting a wider outlook into the political process, connecting expert practice to politics is essential. This leads me to the next challenge we face.

Stuck practice

Traditional engineering and planning, relating to transport and traffic, are in an evolutionary deadend. The current thinking is more roads will solve a capacity problem. Of course, the problem is not about capacity but about efficient use of space (as well as wider issues of society and even survival). In Newcastle this is now “solved” by increasing private motor capacity, a failed practice and a grave mistake to make once more. Apparently, under the current paradigm, space is an infinite resource (never mind health, social and economic limits that are involved too). Engineers and planners are quick to point towards models as if they were sacred items on their altar – worshipped, not to be questioned.

It quickly becomes clear that much of their practice is solely founded on belief, not rationality. Reversing out of the cul-de-sac will be quite a manoeuvre. But it must be done. Two things possibly: firstly, engineers and planners need to become aware – and then, secondly, to learn to be true experts again, champion stewards of the environment and society.

Cognitive challenge

If you have read Kahneman or Ariely (etc) you will be aware that human thinking is compromised in many ways. We are biased towards short term thinking and valueing immediate gains. Also, we only relate to small groups of people (herd animal). Our heritage makes us predisposed to disregarding society-wide issues and things concerning the future. Yet, knowing all this could mean we can mitigate against this – someone just needs to make the first step.

Given these cognitive challenges, talking about bigger challenges like climate change and sustainability may only be fruitful for certain audiences and we, advocates for change, have to

  1. break this down into bitesized chunks (narratives of the mountain top, its perilous path and why it’s worth scaling) to make it relevant to people’s immediate lives, spaces (to grow the grassroots) and
  2. make the urgency to act tangible to decision-makers (getting them to make plans to leave base camp and start the climb)

The language of automobility

It is worth spending some time critically looking at (dissecting…) the words and pictures we all use. As example, I am a great “fan” of media headlines. They seem to, on the one hand sensationalise every little thing that may or may not have happened, but on the other hand when it comes to describing road tragedies, drivers enjoy total absolution of any responsibility. It’s the pervasive use of “hit by a car” that epitomises that automobility absolution to me. There are other pieces of language which are important to take note of too, as they denote the edges of systemic automobility. Watch out for the general gems:

  • “balancing the needs” (ie keeping the status quo balance, when we need rebalancing)
  • sometimes followed by the “of all roads users” (ie if we are all equal, when we have totally different needs)
  • and then “reducing congestion” (ie going on a road binge)
  • “making it safe” (ie exclusive to walking and cycling)
  • and “where possible” (ie doing nothing)

Words that often appear in policy are “encourage” and “promote” – you may have guessed it by now, they essentially means doing nothing – only words no action.

As advocates we often sit at the top unable to see the base camp. Current engrained practice, human cognitive skills and our society’s economic approach conspire against our own good fortunes and futures. The spectre of automobility loomed large in the meeting room. It can often not be physically grasped, it’s more like a fog all around us, shrouding the top for the officials and hiding the base camp from view for the advocates of change. But we must talk about it, picture it, show it, paint its deadends and horrors, and drag it from its shadows.

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2 thoughts on “The foggy view from a mountain top

  1. What excellent thinking to get my day started!

    One immediate thought is to go through the text of that wretched draft of a cycling and walking investment strategy from the DfT (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/draft-cycling-and-walking-investment-strategy) and paste in “do nothing” for every meally-mouthed evasion. That done, look at the statements from would-be mayors and wanna-be-councillors in this coming week’s elections and write in “do nothing” for all the “wherever possible”s and “if appropriate”s in their literature. A commitment to applaud what the candidate has decided is unattainable is pathetic. Leaving crucial decisions about big structural choices that have vital/fatal outcomes to lowest-common-denominator thinking is an abdication of leadership responsibility.

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  2. I went along to a couple of events the week before last that gave me hope that engineers and planners are thinking about their role in traversing the mountain. At the first it was meeting a couple of younger people at the beginning of their careers – that’s always an opportunity for change when a new generation moves through. The other was members of the Transport Planning Society debating the shortcomings of transport modelling as it has existed up until now and its misuse. Not new it turns out, but I think bringing it out to a wider audience is new, as is openly discussing how to rectify it and make improvements.

    Both were in London, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, and I expect the discussion will move out to the various conferences and events that take place around the country. Not that it’s going to be easy to make changes to enable the transition, precisely for the reasons you identify, but I do think painting the big picture and seeking the compelling narrative so people can imagine where they might be in it, and how people’s efforts might link together to bring it about, is helpful.

    And finding the right questions to ask that not only challenge but engage and lead to a thought process which recruits the people in a position to do something about it; academics and advocates who can speak ‘engineer’ could be useful there. When you’re searching for it, the killer question isn’t always obvious, but it is always open, and I think you’re likely to nail some if you haven’t already :o)

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